Ethics Films

X+Y = The Formula for Being Human

Once we cease to believe in God, it is not only the divine that we lose. We also lose the human. From a Christian perspective this of course makes sense, because human beings are made in the image of God, therefore to remove God from our human consciousness (if we could) is to demean, distort and degrade our humanity.

This thought occurred to me last week in the Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre as I watched the wonderful X+Y, the story of an autistic boy who turns out to be a maths genius.

For me it was a profound film, moving and helpful. (Don’t miss it – I doubt there will be a better film this year.) It was is not so much the plot (which I won’t spoil for you) or the brilliant acting, or the imaginative story telling, but rather the reflections on what it means to be human that hit home for me. We are not robots, we are not mere gene machines, we are not even just animals. We are human. The Christian view of humanity offers the best understanding of what that means. But that should not be surprising, given that the maker should know his creation best.

To Be Human is to be Capable of Love

The autistic boy is not good at emotional empathy. He has to deal with the death of his father, and his retreat into himself and into mathematical formulas, with the subsequent impact on his mother, is tragic to behold. At one point he begins to experience what is for him the ‘strange’ feeling of liking a girl. As he struggles with what this means he looks up on the Internet a mathematical formula for ‘love’. It causes a wry smile and yet you can see the logic behind it. If human beings are just chemicals then why should we not be reduced to mathematical formulae? But we are not. What’s love got to do with it? What’s love but a second hand emotion – caused by misfiring chemicals? But love is more than empathy, sexual desire or the evolutionary need to propagate our seed. Love is at the essence of humanity, because God is Love.

To Be Human is to be Responsible

Let me share with you a rather depressing Twitter conversion I (@theweeflea) had with someone we shall just call ‘M’.

M – “You have Hitler’s genes. Raised in same environment. Live through same experiences. You end up as evil as Hitler. Fair comment?”

@theweeflea “no. Too simplistic. Life is even more complex than that and cannot be reduced to a formula.”

M – “I think it’s elegantly simplistic. You think you’d overcome the odds that Hitler faced by exercising free will differently?

@theweeflea – “Poor Hitler – it was just genes and background. He had no responsibility whatsoever…he could not help it! Simplistic and evil”

M – “Your genes and environment shape you. Since we don’t choose either, personal responsibility does not lie with us.”

@theweeflea – “so there is no personal responsibility? You do realise where that leads…?”

M – “It doesn’t mean we should empty our prisons, if that’s what you are insinuating. It means we can’t label anyone ‘evil’ anymore.”

@theweeflea – “So there is no evil, people are not responsible for what they do…this is where atheist illogicality leads.”

This genetic (and environmentalist) determinism is actually quite frightening – just as frightening as the religious maniac who declares that “God/the Devil made me do it.” It takes away all human responsibility and means that all of us are just genetically and culturally programmed. The rapist, Nazi and murderer can just say – “It wasn’t me – my genes were only obeying orders”! On the other hand the Christian teaching on which our whole moral and legal system is based, recognises genetic factors (we are after all born in sin), and the importance of environment (train up a child in the way he should go…) but also holds that it is a fundamental part of being human that we are morally responsible for what we do. That is what makes us human. There will not be a judgement day for cows, monkeys or lions, but there is for us.

To Be Human is to be Moral

This is inextricably tied in with the responsibility. Another Twitter conversation this week both stunned and enlightened me (as a 40-minute preacher, learning to converse in 140 characters has been somewhat challenging). In a discussion about the atonement, sin and judgment my fellow twitee declared “Morals are concerned with conduct and behaviour. So technically a thought cannot be immoral. No action has been taken, no one is affected or hurt.” He thought this was a killer point. How could any thought be immoral or wrong? It’s just a thought. When he was asked about whether someone who thought that child rape was a good thing was being immoral, he refused to answer and instead launched into a series of accusations (something which tends to happen when people are faced with the inevitable logic of their own position). But I was stunned. Can you see why? If morals are only concerned with conduct and behaviour, then thoughts and words are irrelevant. But we all know they are not. As Jesus said, out of the heart comes evil deeds. What we think determines how we behave and what we say is vital (the tongue is a poisonous evil) because words are powerfully creative or destructive.

As our society rejects the Christian teaching about humanity, it is rejecting human responsibility, human morality and human love. And it does not know how to deal with the problems when the fruits of that rejection come home to roost. It is not just that we are spiritually autistic – we are spiritually dead. Sin goes far deeper than societal crime. It cuts into the very heart of our being. And here is where the biblical solution fits in. Love is not a formula, it is a person. If human nature is Y, then the X factor is Christ. Only the Love, which gave His Son, can deal with the disfunctionality, brokenness and chaos of human sin. It is only in Christ that we can discover what it really means to be human. Christianity is the ultimate humanism. “This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:10-12).

This article originally appeared on the The Christian Today website.


  1. Wow – that looks like a great film. Themes of needing to love even though not understanding, of how marginalised can be treated to the point of being afraid to speak although having lots of things to say and how someone with a “power” can be either be perceived as a threat or their gift welcomed.

    It’s amazing how some themes come across in films. I’d recommend seeing the latest in the divergent series – insurgent where attempts are made by the ruling authority to wipe out the divergents but then then it becomming apparent that the divergents’ existence is vital to all, with forgiveness being an important theme for not being ruled by anger.

    Perhaps many churches are either failing to communicate such messages and/or being perceived as irrelevant and God is reaching people through comedy, film and other art forms. Themes of love, forgiveness, talent being used for common good, welcoming of the marginalised. Sounds a lot like what Jesus did.

    I’d like to see X + Y – do you know if it is on general release David?

  2. Though logically speaking, I agree with the basic message of this article, history says something else–and that doesn’t include the atrocities done in the name of Christ. Sometimes, all one has to do is to try to answer a question from a conservative theological position. For example, take one of John Frame’s writings on the Jews taking back part of Palestine in the 1948 war:

    This is the time-honored way of establishing sovereignty throughout human history. Modern observers should not be scandalized at the thought of such issues being settled by military force, nor should we refuse to recognize a regime simply because it was established through force.

    See for the quote above.

    If John and his family had lived in Palestine then or the Occupied Territories now and seen the violence up close and personal, would he so dispassionately refer to war as being a ‘time-honored way’ of establishing borders? Yes, John has written other things about war and has said that it is ‘a terrible thing.’ and he has also said the following about war: ‘ agony of having to administer death or pain to others’ and the ‘sheer terror of the situation’ (see But if those are his real sentiments, where is his passion in wanting to avoid or even speaking against war? It is with his trust in the civil magistrate (see As to who is more human about war, one should compare Frame’s writings on it with that of Erasmus or Howard Zinn.

    History tells us that the Church can act less than what is ideally considered to be human: the burning of witches and heretics in Geneva, Luther’s writing against the Jews, the Puritan’s persecution of Quakers along with their participation in the ethnic cleansing of America’s indigenous people from the land, and slavery along with Jim Crow in America all of which was, according to some Christians, supported by the Bible. Of course, that doesn’t include the American conservative churches’ attempts to marginalize homosexuals in society.

    The short of it is this, we in the Church need to do a better job of being human, as it is ideally thought of, if we want people to see the logic of our argument that to not believe in God is to lose some of our humanity.

  3. “Once we cease to believe in God, it is not only the divine that we lose. We also lose the human.”

    Probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen David Robertson write. Which is remarkable to know that there is a lower low.

    Whether one believes in God or not does not stop them from being human, not in ANY sense of the word.

    This is a typical religious/nationalist polarizing statement that attempts to dehumanize the “enemy”. It’s probably offensive to many good people who find no reason to believe in God. But it’s simply stupid in that it’s a meaningless “deepity”. At worst, it’s the same kind of strategy the Nazi’s used: dehumanize the enemy so you don’t feel bad when you want to deny them Rights. (And David knows all about the tactics of the Nazi’s having read Hitlers ‘personal diaries’. And, BTW, who does that? Who wants to read the ravings of a lunatic, unless he’s looking for ideas? David, why the fascination with Hitler? Do you have a Napoleon complex?)

    Anyhow, the arrogance and ignorance of the statement perfectly reflects that of it’s writer.

    David forgets to tell everyone that it is Science, the language of Humanism, that discovers things like autism – and it has been religion that has killed people for having different minds.

    Just so people are aware, this is the “Humanity” that Christianity has unleashed on the world:

    315 Constantine the Great established “Christianity” as the State religion throughout the Roman Empire; issued many anti-Jewish laws.
    379-95 Theodosius the Great expelled Jews from any official gate position or place of honor. Permitted the destruction of their synagogues if by so doing, it served a religious purpose.
    613 Persecution of the Jews in Spain. All Jews who refused to be baptized had to leave the country. A few years later the remaining Jews were dispossessed, declared as slaves and given to pious “Christians” of position. All children 7 years or over were taken from their parents and given to receive a “Christian” education.
    1096 Bloody persecutions of the Jews at the beginning of the First Crusade, in Germany. Along the cities on the Rhine River alone, 12,000 Jews were killed. The Jews were branded second only to the Moslems as the enemies of Christendom.
    1121 Jews driven out of Flanders (now part of Belgium). They were not to return nor to be tolerated until they repented of the guilt of killing Jesus Christ.
    1130 The Jews of London had to pay compensation of 1 million marks for allegedly killing a sick man.
    1146-47 Renewed persecution of the Jews in Germany at the beginning of the Second Crusade. The French Monk, Rudolf, called for the destruction of the Jews as an introduction to the Second Crusade. It was only because of the intervention of Emperor Conrad who declared Nuerenberg and a small fortress as places of refuge for the Jews, and that of Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, that the result was not quite as devastating as at the time of the First Crusade.
    1181 French King Philip banished the Jews from his domain. They were permitted to sell all movable possessions, but the immovable such as land and houses reverted to the king. Seven years later he called the Jews back.
    1189 At the coronation of Richard the Lionhearted, unexpected persecution of the Jews broke out in England. Most Jewish houses in London were burned, and many Jews killed. All possessions of the Jews were claimed by the Crown. Richard’s successor alone, relieved the Jews of more than 8 million marks.
    1215 At the IV Lateran Church Council, restrictions against the Jews by the church of Rome were issued.
    1290 Edward I banished the Jews from England. 16,000 Jews left the country.
    1298 Persecution of the Jews in Franconia, Bavaria and Austria. The Nobleman Kalbfleish alleged that he had received a divine order to destroy all the Jews. 140 Jewish communities were destroyed, and more than 100,000 Jews were mercilessly killed.
    1306 King Philip the Fair banished the Jews from France. 100,000 Jews left the country.
    1320 In France, 40,000 shepherds dedicated themselves for the Shepherd Crusade to free Palestine from the Moslems. Under the influence of criminals and land speculators, they destroyed 120 Jewish communities.
    1321 Jews were accused of having incited outlaws to poison wells and fountains in the district of Guienne, France. 5,000 Jews were burned at the stake.
    1348 Jews were blamed for the plague throughout Europe, especially in Germany. In Strausberg 2,000 Jews were burned. In Maintz 6,000 were killed in most gruesome fashion, and in Erfut 3,000; and in Worms 400 Jews burned themselves in their homes.
    1370 Jews were blamed for having defiled the “Host” (wafer used in the Mass) in Brabant. The accused were burned alive. Again, all Jews were banned from Flanders and until the year 1820, every 15 years a feast was kept to celebrate the event.
    1391 Persecutions in Spain. In Seville and 70 other Jewish communities, the Jews were cruelly massacred and their bodies dismembered.
    1394 Second banishment of Jews from France.
    1453 The Franciscan monk, Capistrano, persuaded the King of Poland to withdraw all citizens’ rights of the Jewish people.
    1478 The Spanish inquisition directed against the Jews.
    1492 The banishment of Jews from Spain. 300,000 Jews who refused to be “baptized” into the Church of Rome left Spain penniless. Many migrated to the Muslim country, Turkey, where they found tolerance and a welcome.
    1497 Banishment of the Jews from Portugal. King Manuel, generally friendly to the Jews, under pressure from Spain instigated forced baptism to keep the Jews. 20,000 Jews desired to leave the country. Many were ultimately declared slaves.
    1516 First Ghetto established in Venice.
    1540 Banishment of Jews from Naples and 10 years later, from Genoa and Venice.
    1794 Restriction of Jews in Russia, Jewish men were forced to serve 25 years in the Russian military. Many hundreds of thousands of Jews left Russia.
    1846-78 All former restriction, against the Jews in the Vatican State were re-inforced by Pope Pius IX.
    1903 Renewed restrictions of Jews in Russia. Frequent pogroms (massacres); general impoverishment of Russian Jewry.

    1. Ah Brent – you are always good for a laugh – with your cut and paste wiki history and your atheistic histrionics! And I love your illogicality….saying that when we cease to believe in God we lose not only the divine but the human, does not mean that we are saying that those who are not believers are not human. Take your time, take a deep breath and try and think it through.

      Its good that you brought up the Nazis – because they give a perfect illustration of what happens when a nation turns from God. The most civilised, advanced, scientific nation in the world ending up regarding human beings as just chemicals to be got rid of. They did not see the Jews, or the Gypsies, or the Homosexuals or the Christians as people made in the image of God, but as lower orders on the spectrum of evolution, who, for the good of the human race, could be got rid of. If there is no God, then humans are not made in the image of God. We are not all created equal because there is no Creator – instead we are, as Bertrand Russell said “blobs of carbon floating from one meaningless existence to another”…..killing someone is just rearranging chemicals.

      ‘science is the language of humanism”……thats hilarious. Untrue but hilarious. Your delusion is in deep….but thanks for the laugh….

      1. Hitler was only continuing the work of Christians since Constantine. He was inspired by Martin Luther, a hero of yours.

        You meant what you said, David, and you’ve only continued that here. You have some idiotic idea that if people don’t believe in God, they will kill without remorse.

        I will remind you Aztecs believed in God when they killed, the slave owners killed when they believed in God, the Allies killed when they believed in God, and our leaders have prayed to God when deciding to go to war, drop bombs, execute criminals and all the rest.
        Remember, David, most of the world believes in God – yet you bemoan the state of the world!
        Look at yourself! You believe in God, but you would treat gay people as “gay people”, not human beings with rights of their own. Or look at your own contributions to society as public fool and polemicist? You believe in God, why aren’t you more human? Why do you continue throwing your own shit around?

      2. “And I love your illogicality….saying that when we cease to believe in God we lose not only the divine but the human, does not mean that we are saying that those who are not believers are not human. ”
        I understand you were trying to speak allegorically. What you mean to say is that what makes humans “human” is belief in God.
        That’s just plain stupid, David.
        I bet you don’t know one atheist who has lost their humanity in the allegorical sense, unless you simply assert “human” means, among other things, “believes in God”.
        You do realize that many human being don’t believe in God – and still are “human” in the allegorical sense, don’t you?
        Look at the wonderful strides Scotland and other growing secularized nations are making. Look at the horrible state of the “god-believing” countries.
        Secularism is better, David. You are too brainwashed to accept it, and you spend your time striving to sow discord. What you sow, so you shall reap.
        Why not be a good person, David? Why are trying to be evil?

      3. BTW, here is the definition of “Good”:
        to be desired or approved of.
        “we live at peace with each other, which is good”
        synonyms: healthy, fine, sound, tip-top, hale and hearty, fit, robust, sturdy, strong, vigorous More
        antonyms: poor, ill
        pleasing and welcome.
        “she was pleased to hear good news about him”
        expressing approval.
        “the play had good reviews”
        having the qualities required for a particular role.
        “the schools here are good”
        synonyms: fine, superior, quality; More
        antonyms: bad, inept, unconvincing
        appropriate to a particular purpose.
        “this is a good month for planting seeds”
        synonyms: convenient, suitable, appropriate, fitting, fit; More
        (of language) with correct grammar and pronunciation.
        “she speaks good English”
        strictly adhering to or fulfilling all the principles of a particular cause, religion, or party.
        “a good Catholic girl”
        synonyms: close, intimate, dear, bosom, special, best, firm, valued, treasured; More
        (of a ticket) valid.
        “the ticket is good for travel from May to September”
        possessing or displaying moral virtue.
        “I’ve met many good people who made me feel ashamed of my own shortcomings”
        synonyms: virtuous, righteous, upright, upstanding, moral, ethical, high-minded, principled; More
        antonyms: wicked
        showing kindness.
        “you are good—thank you”
        synonyms: kind, kindhearted, good-hearted, thoughtful, generous, charitable, magnanimous, gracious; More
        obedient to rules or conventions.
        “accustom the child to being rewarded for good behavior”
        synonyms: well behaved, obedient, dutiful, polite, courteous, respectful, deferential, compliant More
        used to address or refer to people, especially in a patronizing or humorous way.
        “the good people of the city were disconcerted”
        commanding respect.
        “he was concerned with establishing and maintaining his good name”
        belonging or relating to a high social class.
        “he comes from a good family”
        giving pleasure; enjoyable or satisfying.
        “the streets fill up with people looking for a good time”
        synonyms: enjoyable, pleasant, agreeable, pleasurable, delightful, great, nice, lovely; More
        antonyms: unpleasant, terrible, bad, inclement
        pleasant to look at; attractive.
        “you’re looking pretty good”
        (of clothes) smart and suitable for formal wear.
        “he went upstairs to change out of his good suit”
        synonyms: best, finest, nicest; More
        “the attic needed a good cleaning”
        used to emphasize that a number is at least as great as one claims.
        “they’re a good twenty years younger”
        synonyms: whole, full, entire, complete, solid
        “we waited a good hour”
        used to emphasize a following adjective.
        “we had a good long hug”
        fairly large.
        “a good crowd”
        synonyms: considerable, sizable, substantial, appreciable, significant; More
        used in conjunction with the name of God or a related expression as an exclamation of extreme surprise or anger.
        “good heavens!”
        noun: good; plural noun: goods
        that which is morally right; righteousness.
        “a mysterious balance of good and evil”
        synonyms: virtue, righteousness, goodness, morality, integrity, rectitude; More
        antonyms: wickedness
        benefit or advantage to someone or something.
        “he convinces his father to use his genius for the good of mankind”
        synonyms: benefit, advantage, profit, gain, interest, welfare, well-being; More

        Now, I think you only use 1st definition of the noun, but why should we only use your restrictive definition, and not mine which includes yours?

      4. Brent – thanks for the cut ‘n’ paste – but we are talking about what is good in a moral sense. So how do you determine what is good and evil…?


      5. You’re stuck on stupid, David. This has been answered. Asking the question, as if it’s asserting a truth is not thinking. It’s the opposite.
        How do you determine what is good and evil?

      6. Brent – I note you are unwilling to answer your own question. As for me I follow Richard Dawkins view that an absolute definition of good and evil is impossible without God. He is good. Anything opposed to him is evil or results in evil… now back to you…how do you define good and evil?

      7. It’s interesting you practice hero worship on all levels, but I don’t. I don’t think Richard Dawkins is any kind of expert in moral theory.

        But you haven’t answered the question. You just said “God”. What does that mean in terms of the question? Is cloning morally good? What does God think about it?
        It genocide good? What does God think about it?
        Do you know the mind of God? If not, then how do YOU know what is Good? What is Evil?

        You have to have a referent.

        This is Philosophy 101.

      8. Brent – I thought you never posted anything without citing experts?! You still have not answered what good and evil is – or how we get it. You are right of course about Dawkins. He is no moral expert. And your question is valid – how can we know the mind of God? Only if he reveals himself to us….and he has – in Christ and through his word. The only question is whether you are listening!

      9. How do you know God agrees with what is in the Bible? Your assertion isn’t enough. Maybe he disagrees with the great David Robertson.

      10. Unsupported assertion. How would you know “his word” doesn’t lie? Because a writer, much like yourself, said it?
        I’m sorry, that is woefully fallacious.

        And, I don’t know why you are waiting for my definition of Good and Evil… haven’t already discussed it with you.

        Maybe you have a learning disability? Or you can’t think of anything else to avoid actually engaging the subject.

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